Audio-Visual Intensities of War

in 64th Krakow Film Festival (Docs and Shorts)

by Hannes Wesselkämper

In September 2022, The New York Times published intercepted phone calls by Russian soldiers during their deployment in the war against Ukraine. At that point, Ukrainian military intelligence had already been recording these calls to mothers, fathers, and wives back home over a few months and provided them to journalists in a counter-propagandistic feat. But these numerous hours of phone calls, which later became public on YouTube and other platforms, convey more than that.

While these conversations have certainly been selected to make the Russian army look bad, to highlight their crimes against humanity as well as their hasty retreat when met with fierce resistance by Ukrainian fighters, they also tell stories of insecure and desolated soldiers, propaganda-fueled relatives on the home front, and young men turned racist killing machines on the brink of madness. Even the fuzziness and incompleteness of the intercepted material itself entails a distinct emotive value.

The Ukrainian director Oksana Karpovych recognized the enormous potential of these calls, both as a story-telling device and as proof of an inhumane Russian war machine. She contrasts the Russian voices with images of the devastated Ukrainian landscape. Shot by DOP Christopher Nunn, every single one of these minute-long tableaux vivants turns spectators into witnesses. We see bombed-out residential buildings, looted homes and old people huddled together in shelters as they prepare canned food, warning sirens blaring in the background. And not only do we become witnesses: there is a war between sound and image that challenges our sense for coherence in documentary cinema. While there is believable fear in some Russian soldiers’ voices, we see the consequences of their doings often complemented by eerie music: war-ravaged landscapes, torn families and thousands of civilian victims.

This distinct juxtaposition of visual and audio material manages to capture various intensities of war. Pity and disgust for the Russian invaders are closely linked, the abhorrent propaganda machine shines through in the racist comments of Russians on the home front, and their consequences become all the more visible in mass graves and destroyed Ukrainian cities. What may appear as an overly conceptual piece of filmmaking – Karpovych never alters her approach over 95 minutes – is quite the opposite. With every new combination of images and phone calls, a new intensity of war becomes graspable. At times, it is the conjunction of opposite emotions in sound and image that challenges the viewer, and then there are other instances when the film doubles down emotionally: moments of pure horror on both levels, the gruesome reports by Russian soldiers and the visible suffering of the Ukrainian population.

With its challenging but never abstract approach, Intercepted (original title Мирні люди, which means: Peaceful People) becomes a powerful document of the horrors that Ukrainians faced and still face in their home country. Still, Karpovych does not rely on mere counter-propaganda; she finds artistic value in the intercepted phone calls. Without claiming the moral high ground, she strips this material from its propagandistic context and appropriates it, re-assembles and comments it with her own images. This makes for an even deeper cut into the dynamics of a horrible war than journalistic reporting could ever provide. In this way, Intercepted advocates thorough reflection and, ultimately, the genuine power of artistic documentary filmmaking.

Hannes Wesselkämper
Edited by Birgit Beumers